The Agile Innovation Dilemma

One the seminal events for the development of the agile software development movement was the 1986 publication in HBR of “The New New Product Development Game” by Nonaka and Takeuchi. Describing lean production principles applied to new product development, the paper introduced the metaphor of a rugby team where a clear goal, overlapping skill sets and joint accountability allow teams dynamically adapt and self-organise to achieve their objectives despite unforeseen setbacks and challenges. From this, the term scrum was used by Sutherland and Schwaber in 1995 to describe an incremental, team based approach to software development. In this way, agile development and innovating new products share a common lineage.
Agile methods have long been advocated in supporting innovation. They explicitly call for self-reflection and improvement of the method through retrospection. Close customer contact and an understanding of the business problem to be solved can help the development team develop more innovative solutions than if they were coding to a static functional specification. Proponents have written of ‘hyper-productive’ scrum exhibiting ‘punctuated equilibrium’ leading to discontinuous or radical innovations. However, agile practicioners offer an alternate view – the intense focus on delivering small increments of customer centric features in the immediate future undermines their ability to seek out alternate solutions, to ‘think outside the box’. This is what I refer to as the “agile innovation dilemma”. So what has gone wrong?

Agile methods promise, first and foremost, agility – that is, flexibility in responding to changing requirements, technology and markets. But in promoting agile, more traditional values such as productivity, quality and time to market are often to the fore.  In efforts to realise these benefits, agile implementations often become exercises in micro-managing development teams, with local optimisations coming to the fore. These are reflected in many of the ‘patterns of failure’ seen in agile projects, and I’ll be describing some of these in future posts. Unfortunatly, these tend to mitigate against innovation, resulting in ‘pressure cooker’ development environments where all focus is on delivering the next increment of functionality, where the product owner is breathing down your neck, and where doing the simplest thing can take precedence over doing the ‘right’ thing.

When did you last hear of agile being introduced to enhance the innovation of a team?

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